Journey to the West (Chang Cheh, 1991)

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a big fan of The Journey to the West in its literary form. And I’ve got a pretty wide ranging appreciation for the cinematic adaptations that visualize the story with varying degrees of fidelity. I did, after all, choose an internet handle from one of the principle characters in the story. I even played the part of the loveable porcine man-child in a student theater production in college.

I also love films by Shaw Brothers’ million dollar auteur Chang Cheh. Chang rose to prominence with the 1966 film One-Armed Swordsman, which not only tapped into the generational malaise afflicting Hong Kong youth at the time, but revolutionized Hong Kong’s approach to the wuxia genre, then dominated by Cantonese film makers and teenage starlets, with its combination of heavily masculine themes and imagery. Its cinematographic style was so heavily imitated that the only competition it has for the most influential martial arts film of all time is King Hu’s Come Drink with Me. And aside from being an epochal genre film, it’s also plain fun to watch, and has aged better than many other films of its vintage.

Chang went through various stages in his film-making career. He started as a critic and writer; experimented as a co-director and crafted a legendary lost film, Tiger Boy, before moving on to making the most profitable film in Shaw Brothers’ New Wuxia Century wave of Mandarin language wuxia films in the 1960’s; he worked extensively with David Chiang and Ti Lung in wuxia, kung fu, and historical spectacles before settling into a niche of manic kung fu films utilizing the talents of Taiwanese born Peking Opera stars Phillip Kwok, Lu Feng, and Chiang Sheng. I could go on about Chang’s accomplishments during each of these periods for several more paragraphs.

But towards the end of his career, Chang was no longer the same creative force as he was when he made One Armed Swordsman. His final Shaw Brothers film, The Weird Man, was neither well received critically, nor profitable. It’s so utterly farcical in some portions that the mind wanders from the film itself to contemplate the mental state of the man who made it. After leaving Shaw Brothers, Chang made three films in Taiwan, using many of the actors from his latter period at Shaw Brothers. These five films not only used some of the same actors, but Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng – often the action directors and assistant directors from his Shaw Brothers days – took over many of the directorial duties for films like Nine Demons and Attack ofthe Joyful Goddess.

Chang Cheh had always, if those who worked with him are to be believed (and there’s no real reason to doubt them), been a fairly hands-off director. By the mid-eighties, however, Chang’s eyesight was deteriorating. But even so, I think at least two of Chang’s films from this era, Shanghai 13 and Attack of the Joyful Goddess, are worth seeing.

After this brief excursion in Taiwanese film making, Chang Cheh headed to the Mainland, where he continued to “direct” in the capacity that he could. He found a stable of Peking Opera talent, dubbed by Western fans as “the New Venoms,” and set about either remaking or retreading his old films (Hidden Hero is a remake of Life Gamble; Ninja in Ancient China is like a remix of both The Weird Man and Five Element Ninjas).
Chang Cheh’s Journey to the West is new territory for him, although he was no stranger to fantasy films tinged with Operatic visual cues. It certainly takes the same tack as other low budget, low ambition adaptations though. The film covers the episode in which Princess Iron Fan attempts to kidnap the Tang monk with the help of her step-son, Red Boy, only to be foiled by Sun Wukong and company. In Chang’s film, the Bodhisattva Guan Yin sends her emissaries (including Na Zha), to aid in the battle against Red Boy and his magic.
The film starts with a synopsis of the story thus far, with the imprisonment of Monkey, his journey with Xuanzhang, the Tang monk, meeting Pigsy and Sandy, etc. Then there are some hijinks with a demon who accosts the travelling crew, followed by Monkey and company meeting with Princess Iron Fan. She’s annoyed with Ox King, her husband, who has taken a second wife. After a failed attempt at seducing Monkey (and a thorough rebuking of Pigsy, who is happy to fill in for Monkey after he abjures Iron Fan’s advances), Princess Iron Fan begins scheming to kidnap the monk.

But before that, Monkey and co. must help a small outpost which is besieged by demons pretending to be the Emperor, who has raised taxes to an unreasonable rate. This is where the film indulges in the long tradition of having Monkey disguise himself as various other characters with his magic, although none of the actors portray unique enough personalities make this fun, and only the inevitable jump cut between one actor and the other gives away the game.
It’s also where two supporting characters are introduced, who are in love and betrothed. One of them will later be killed by Princess Iron Fan, and the other never mentioned again.

Finally, the film meanders into the major fight between the Red Boy and the heroes. Monkey, Sandy, Ne Zha, and two other characters whose names I can’t remember (if they were ever mentioned) have it out in a ten minute brawl with Red Boy and his demonic cohorts. We get to see Monkey use his magical hair, which turns into monkey fighters, along with a bevy of pyrotechnics, poorly done wire work, and some genuinely good fight choreography.
Although credited to Chang, much of the direction was likely on the shoulders of Dung Chi-Wa, Du Yu-Ming, and Mu Li-Xin, who also handled action direction and play Monkey, Sandy, and Red Boy, respectively. The camera work occasionally resembles Chang Cheh’s better films from Shaw Brothers, utilizing slow motion and overhead angles when large crowds fight in formation, but very often looks utterly awful with people flitting in and out of frame, or the frame being too close to capture all of the movements during one-on-one fight scenes. Lighting equipment makes a split second cameo in one shot.

So it isn’t the best looking film. Locations are re-used; there is little visual continuity – how exactly can the heroes journey through a desert and somehow come across the same leafy outpost time and again? But it does have nice fight choreography. And the finale threatens to wander into Yuen Clan territory with fighters on rocket propelled roller skates and bladed, flame throwing go-carts.
There’s also some of Chang Cheh’s trademark gore on display, including visible intestines.
This was the penultimate film of Chang’s career, with the much better Ninja in Ancient China premiering two years later in 1993. In some ways, it’s a shame to see the once brilliant creative force stamping his name on such a lacking product. At the same time, you almost have to respect Chang for cranking out a movie when he was nearly blind. A lot is made of the sexual politics and sanguine aspects of Chang Cheh’s films, but the man loved making movies – he made them as long as he could. That’s pretty awesome, even if most of the later films are not, or are for unintended reasons.

And that finale is worth seeing at least once, if only to get a glimpse of Dung Chi-Wa in action before Stephen Chow rediscovered him and cast him as the spear wielding master in Kung Fu Hustle.

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